Every few months, he appears. Not always in exactly the same place, but close enough. He brings with him troves of knowledge and delight and the wonderful scent of old books. He lays them out upon tables which feel like they might buckle under the weight of knowledge atop them. Yet, out of the myriad hundreds of his wares, I inevitability discover something I had almost forgotten I was seeking, something otherwise unattainable. It is only much later, once I have returned home with my purchase, that I realise I had forgotten to ask him when he might return. Perhaps this is part of the enchantment?
Lest you think I’m describing a sprite or wizard or a fever dream… I’m actually talking about the second-hand bookseller who sets up his stall on Oxford Road. Down the years, I’ve never managed to derive a pattern to where and when he will appear. Sometimes it’s a weekday evening at the entrance to All Saints’ Park; or perhaps a Sunday afternoon outside the Aquatic Centre. But, every so often I will encounter his stall, and there is always some obscure title I’ve struggled to find elsewhere.
Whilst, a Saturday afternoon spent shopping is pure anathema for me, the one exception is book shopping. I can happily while away half an hour (or more) in a bookstore, be it a large chain like Waterstones, or smaller independent stores like Travelling Man or the Chorlton Bookshop. I’ve always got a mental list of books I would like to buy – usually new releases or recommendations from friends or book blogs.
However, I’m also partial to a visit to second-hand book stores, be they Oxfam book shops or other charity shops, or independent second-hand stores. They’re similar yet different to other book shops; not simply that welcoming scent of old paper and pre-loved books. There’s an air of mystery, of having next-to-no clue about what authors and titles might be for sale. Second-hand bookshops are often hidden in small lanes away from the busy thoroughfare of the town or city, in old buildings with low ceilings and winding staircases.
Over a year ago, I visited the small town of Buxton in Derbyshire. Whilst there, I came across a shop called Scrivener’s Books, which I can only accurately describe as a five-floor emporium of second-hand books. From the exterior, the shop looks tiny; yet, once I entered a door at the back wall, it was like walking through a wardrobe in Digory Kirkle’s spare room into Narnia itself. The staircases are narrow, the floor has a gentle slope, and the walls are stacked with thousands and thousands of books. It was something akin to heaven. Almost immediately, I spotted a copy of one of my favourite childhood tales, The Fox Busters by Dick-King Smith (and promptly purchased it to give to my husband’s godson).
Over the years, I’ve developed an almost Room-of-Requirement-esque relationship with second-hand booksellers. When I’ve failed to find a title in Waterstones et al, and I continue to refuse to purchase from Amazon, I find myself gravitating to the second-hand bookshop. Almost every time, whichever book I seek is contained on its shelves.
Years after giving up on ever finding a copy of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (even in libraries across three different cities), I found it on the stalls of the bookseller on Oxford Road. When Waterstones didn’t stock Mary Seacole’s autobiography, or anything by Ann Radcliffe, a quick visit to the Chorlton branch of Oxfam books happily yielded both. Serendipitous or spooky?
There’s something strangely sentimental about a second-hand, or pre-loved book, from notes in the margins to owner’s (and sometimes, gift-giver’s) names scribbled on the title page. To whom did the book last belong? Was it read for study, or for pleasure? One could easily ask the same questions of a library book too, but this will almost certainly have passed through many more than hands than a second-hand book.
Virginia Woolf once said of the pre-loved book:
“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”
Of course, I should be reminding myself that I need to pause on the book-buying for a little while. My “to-be-read” pile currently outnumbers my “read” pile. A word which has garnered lots of the attention recently is “tsundoku” – the act of buying more books than can conceivably be read. I suspect I might be little bit guilty of this…